Аngel V. Аngelov

Nature in Sofia: an asocial waste land

Nature in Sofia: an asocial waste land
title: Nature in Sofia: an asocial waste land
year: 2006
editor(s): Alexander Kiossev
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Аngel V. Аngelov
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

“Crescit, desintegrat”
Growing but desintegrating (Latin). The phrase refers to the official motto of the city of Sofia “It grows but does not age”

The living environment in Sofia offers an opportunity to analyse the daily images of irrationality, chaos and alienness which accompany the city’s transformation into a metropolis. We inhabit spaces devoid of culture – in the core meaning of the word – spaces devoid of care, maintenance and respect for them. Spaces in which culture ‘has gone wild’, in which it has lost its social characteristics. We are accomplices in behaviours through which the city degrades itself to becoming nature, to which social norms do not apply and, conversely, in the more rare attempts for turning no man’s spaces in social ones. By nature I mean not parks and gardens but nature dislodged, pushed out which returns as a waste land in the space of the city, in images of social regress which can no longer be controlled, and for this reason it generates aggression and insecurity while we pretend that the threat does not exist. Dislodged nature returns in wasteland images and it is not only tolerated but also constantly reproduced by the members of the community who are simultaneously agents and victims. The present text briefly explores the social-psychological atmosphere as well – the combination of apathy and hostility that motivates the behaviour of people in the city to not only allow but also support the existence of such spaces.

Environmental organization in housing estates that were designed and built in the second half of the 1950’s still resembles the old city structure –there are streets, grass patches that are reminiscent of gardens in front of houses, blocks of flats whose height does not exceed the average height in the city, perpendicular alleys. This combination of budding socialism and previously existing, bourgeous features can still be seen today. Since the beginning or the middle of the 1960’s in the then new housing estates – Iztok, Geo Milev and especially in Mladost (I suppose that the name was chosen as indiscreet derision), and later Lyulin – the city space imploses, it conquers nature around Sofia without rationalising it well and without taking it into consideration so that the ‘assemblage’ of a block of flats, rank maze and a grazing herd was for a while an ordinary sight. The similarities with the old city space grew fewer in numbers and the new space was a carefree and anonymous one.
Instead of the usual urban organization with its variety of combinations of closed and open spaces, of restraint and liberation - a dynamics of the field of vision - and instead of the unfolding and intersection of visual plots generally together with transport and communications facilities, in the housing estates such a phenomenology of space is missing. Blocks - standing on their own and separated among themselves or glued through partitioning walls (an allusion to a street?); the spaces among them which are literally, not symbolically, difficult or often impossible to cross – both are images of frustrated communication and sensuous apathy. In the city too communication and conditions for socialising are constantly being subverted except when efforts for sustaining them are made, but in housing estates socialising is denied due to the dereliction of space and the technical structure of the blocks of flats which generates dissent and social disruption among the inhabitants. If urban space could foster disposition toward connectedness, transitions and variety, the space of housing estates obstructs the possibility for their existence.
The inhabitant of a housing estate and the city dweller have opposing Gestalts for the city and hence incompatible behaviours. The old urban structure of Sofia is destroyed not so much by the large population as by the Gestalt of the city formed through  the homelessness and chaos of the housing estate, a Gestalt of the city as an asocial (hostile and alien) environment against which the only protection is aggression. This Gestalt later proved to be anti-ecological too. Gradually, the urban environment started resembling that of the housing estates.
In short, since the early 1960’s the urban territory of Sofia has  been expanding extravagantly without the availability of a modern infrastructure and without any socialising conditions for the inhabitants. With time the spaces among blocks of flats ‘go wild’ and begin turning into a dump. These spaces do not belong to the inhabitants of the block, they belong to the municipality and in this sense they are no man’s spaces. Тhis is the case from the perspective of legal regulation. But is the behaviour of neglect  and desertion also motivated by the sense of discomfort, alienness and hostility generated by the housing estates? There is the impression that the blocks of flats have been built independently of one another as though there had been no will for an overall organization or as though the construction plans had been ill co-ordinated.
The movement of the individual, however, is not  supported but hindered not only in the housing estates but also throughout the city  which is why after the years of childhood and adolescence the body is constantly reminded that the time of agility is gone, and the puddles, the mud, the holes, the pot-holed pavements, the ice have become an obstacle and a threat and hopping among them no longer brings joy. After a certain age moving in Sofia is a humiliation. To the people (we kindly refer to them as invalids), who can move with great effort or only with somebody else’s help, the space of Sofia denies the right of free movement, it isolates them, and demonstrates the same asocial features. The same applies to prams, young children and old people. The lack of physical power becomes a moral flaw and the demonstration of power – a virtue; it secures social existence just as it is in nature. Perhaps this is why in the streets of Sofia threats are an ordinary speech act. The body is not a means of movement, but of overcoming obstacles. The body is constantly tested against the threats, visible and and assumed, of the so-called living environment. There is a constant sense that the environment does not support you. The daily edginess of the people in Sofia is a consequence of the sense that you move in an environment of latent or open hostility.

If the space among block of flats is nobody’s, which space is accepted as owned, as one that our behaviour is responsible for? According to the municipality ordinance the inhabitants must clean a space of 20 metres around the buildings.  But it is exactly the space around the buildings that is full of litter more than any other. Empty food packages merrily riot in the city of Sofia. After the end of socialism voluminous consummerist desires – especially for packaged foods - are produced through marketing and advertising.  We walk in litter that demonstrates serious consumption that seems to be overcoming poevrty. Concerns for the urban environment or a network for rational waste management to maintain an ecological balance, have not been produced. Consumption is tranformed in pollution, in hostility that produces a waste land, which in turn reinforces the sense of living in a hostile and alien environment the basic gesture towards which is not care but aggresison and revenge.
Together with the masisve litter in Sofia, the people who live on it appear. They are armed with carts and bags, more rarely with a horse and a carriage. The appearance of the horses and the people suggests malnourishment. The dog, sometimes many dogs, is the companion of these scavengers. In this respect the stray animal and the human being are equal; not on the  plane of culture but on the no man’s territory of those pushed out of the social.
The staircase is a similar space. It is also alien, someone else’s, and indifference, if not direct hostility, is directed at it; the staircase is slowly degraded to the state of a waste land. When  we reach the entrance door of an apartment, we notice that the signs with the names of the inhabitants are more often missing than they are available. This creates the impression that Sofia residents as a whole are here for a short period of time, vita brevis, which is why not only is it unclear who lives in the blocks of flats, but also the the main entrances of the blocks betray a behaviour similar to that preceding the departure form a place. The real reason for this anonymity and concealment is probably the lack of responsibility for presence, for one’s own residing. The dwelling place is nameless just as the space between blocks. Residing is half-absence, a state of potential abandonement. Nomadically archaic.
To my mind, just as the inhabitants of Sofia do not show in their behaviour that they are aware of the existence of nature, in a similar manner  we do not show awareness that people other than ourselves exist. It is only our desires that are valid and not the observation of rules and conventions that shape the basis of social existence. The citizens of Sofia demonstrate an infantile attitude and in order to overcome it the municipality should introduce various psychotherapeutic practices. This would drag us out of non-reflective cohabitation and egocentric desires. Because in Sofia there is forced cohabitation, not social existence. The other is perceived only as an obstacle that should be removed or  skirted.
The anonymity of existence is combined with a mythical certainty that we are at the centre of the universe. If, upon arrival at any of the railway stations in Sofia, we try to find out where we are, we will have to reach the very entrance in order to read the name of the station. The same goes for using public transport. It is only possible if we already know where we are and how we can get to our destination.
If you are a foreigner, you either have to speak Bulgarian or better don’t come here. But even if you speak the language finding your way in Sofia is not going to get any easier or better. A vehicle labeled N 76 appears before your eyes. Evidently, it is a bus and it is a public transport vehicle; the route however, is enigmatic. Sometimes the top front of the bus reads Bahnstrasse U or Nickolausweg but it seems that these detsinations are no longer valid.  The place for the number at the back of the bus is usually suggested by the lamp that used to lit the number, but here both have become unnecessary.
We are happy that public transport exists at all.  In more advanced urban communities such as Los Angeles there is no such thing, they say. Still, there are signs that any foreigner can read: Change, Coca Cola, TDK, L&M. Isn’t this enough? There was no thought about the possibility that this transport system may at some point be used by people who do not know it well. Finding your way happens by asking, just like in the country. The situation of impossible oreintation is constant in Sofia. It shows not only that those living here are the only important people but also that there are no others for whom access and orientation in the city should be made easier. The obstacles in infrastructure are communicative barriers signifying the shortage of open and communicative social existence.  What is more, there is an obstinate emphasis on sealing off and destruction.  The holes in the roads, the uncomfortable and dark public transport system, the trams in which the temperature in winter in not much higher than the one outside, the recycled German buses that degenerate after being used for a few months – they all demonstrate a revengeful pleasure at generating detsruction and threat to the other. The citizen of Bulgaria or of any other country who does not know Sofia is left to themselves, they cannot rely on a supporting network of signs for orienation.  There is an impression of a lack of will for good organization and management. Words like social solidarity should only be interpreted in the context of elevated longings. A more relevant description would be that of images and behaviours which tend toward the asocial.
‘The most dangerous thing to do is to cross on green light’, as an ironic warning has it. On the one hand the expression should justify the tendency to cross on red light which is done because, as I already pointed out, the citizen of Sofia is guided only by his or her own desire – even when this desire is linked to endangering his or her life -  and not by a considerate participation in the network of relations whose regulation creates the momentary co-ordination (community and mutual considertaion) of every crossroads. Оn the other hand, the above expression reflects reality itelsef: ‘the green light’ signals a span when the pedestrian is not careful, he or she has the right to cross the street. But this rule is not valid for the behaviour of the driver who waits only when forced to because in front of his or her car there is a flow of other cars and the driver is threatened to crash in them if he or she does not stop. The pedetsrian poses no threat to the driver so the latter can go ‘on red’ and have the pedestrian scurry like a hare or sweep them away while turning right. The pedestrian is the other – an obstacle to be removed. In this environment the elderly, the children and the disabled are not welcome. Their bodies are not agile enough to overcome obstacles quickly. They are not just obstacles, they cannot remove anyone. Uselessness.
I used to live in a neighbourhood where it was customary for a resident to turn their flat into a night club until the small hours with shouts and whistles accompanying the music.  One’s celebration was a punishment for floors and floors of flats whose inhabitants could not sleep. Celebrations were held on weekdays, weekends and holidays and walls in pannel block are excellent  noise conductors. It was in 1995, I think, when the media reported that a young man was shot dead on the following occasion. Noisy parties were thrown in a flat which turned the life of the neighbours into a misery of music. The tension form the conflict between the young man and the lover of loud music escalated and ended with the young man’s death. He must have insisted on having peace and quiet but not quite politely – perhaps annoyed by the noise -  while the neighbour found it appropriate to shoot him adding physical violence to the one of sound. Here the expression ‘ecology of sound’ would be grotesque. I suppose that we have all been exposed to sound crashes until we reach the verge of sanity because of somebody’s celebrations and probably we have sometimes produced such crashes ourselves. A celebration in which the unleashed malice seems to be more than the joy. The attempts to explain that this is a kind of aggression too are met with mute surprise or indignation that somebody’s pleasure is being challenged. Sound aggression is something ordinary in Sofia. It is not defined as crime and the right is always on the side of the owner of the more powerful stereo. Here the audiatur et altera pars principle cannot be applied accoustically and hence it cannot be applied at all.
On the ground floors of blocks of flats cafés are open – social spaces by definition - and their sounds in the late evenings/early nights  are infiltrated in the dreams of the inhabitants of the building who live on the upper floors. The cafés are a source of rent, of course, so in the contractual relation the exchange of rent for disturbed sleep is incorporated. In other words, the rent of the café should be conceived of also as a payment for ‘residential hazards’ which is at least some consolation since nobody offers compensation for the noise of the car alarms. We accept them as the sound of the wind, a natural phenomenon that is beyond the control of the social body and hence it would be unreasonable to expect that it can regulate them. The dominant sound of the city of Sofia radiates the same threat, hostility and lack of awareness of the existence of the other and of the rest of the space.
As I write this, the neighbouring block of flats is thumping with loud music. And because it is late at night, I call the police and ask them with some embarrassment (and I apologize too) whether they could do something so that the music becomes less loud. They ask for my address, phone number and name so that they can verify the complaint. We don’t reach an agreement because I refuse to give my phone number to the police. Why don’t I want to do it?
In order to avoid being perceived as identifying aggression with the asocial, let me give another example that impressed me with its quietly asocial features.  Once in the Goethe institute library there was a man in his forties  in front of me in the queue who was returning some books and wanted to borrow others. The librarian asked for his library membership card whose number is used to identify the reader’s name very quickly in the data base. ‘I don’t have it on me’, the man said. And added proudly,’I have principles’.  His infantile pride that he is different from the others obviously did not allow the thought that he was impeding the work of the librarian and slowing down the queue and that not carrying his card in this case was a small, quiet and asocial gesture.

‘In Pleven ninety people every day are injured after falling on ice in the streets. In the morning hours about sixty people arrive in the orthopaedic clinic with sprained or broken limbs. More than 20 are the cases of broken hip bones in the last 10 days, according to information provided by the clinic.’ (Kontinent newspaper, 11 February 1998, p2). In the beginning of every winter everybody in Sofia expects - with the joy of anticipation and gauging - the key phrase ‘This year the winter has caught us by surprise’. The phrase is a ritual one, it is supposed to explain why yet again the major roads, not to mention the sidewalks, have not been cleared and sanded. This predictable surprise causes accidents, traffic jams and a huge expense of energy. The municipality does not have enough equipment or staff (and probably logistics) in order to make the roads and territory of Sofia safer. This is a fact but what do the citizens do? Apparently winter surprises them too since they do not clear the paths to the entrances either, not to mention the common areas on the sidewalks. But even the steps in front of the entrances are not covered with sand and salt. The citizens have delegated the clearing of the snow to the sun and the rotation of the earth in the direction of spring.  Our entrance also falls in the category of the worshippers of the sun. The exceptions are so rare that they are noticed immediately and cause admiring exclamations. Even one’s  body does not belong to oneself in the sense of creating social existence, an environment where it may feel supported. It seems that life has requirements which are difficult to be met in Sofia.

One of the photos (I have got ten without putting in much effort) shows the body of a small dog  cut into two by a tram. The body stayed like this for weeks. Dog and cat corpses can be seen in the srteets of Sofia and especially near the highways where they have been thrown by the passing cars. Of course, this happens to people too. It is always the animal’s or the pedestrian’s fault. Their fault is that they are weaker. Around the Central Bath in Sofia I used to see dogs with one or two broken legs. I thought they had been run by cars that were parked around until I saw two Roma children breaking the dogs’ legs with big stones.This was happening while the dogs were drinking water from puddles or were tossing plastic bags around hoping to find food in them. If man is social existence and language, then the social existence of these Roma children was barely  flickering. They were probably the guinnea pigs of Roma producers of fake alchohol. Beaten, humiliated, hungry, ragged, the Roma children were taking their revenge on the dogs, the only creatures weaker than themselves. They were taking revenge for being asocial.
Would it be possible to find a solution for the problem with stray dogs for which one would not have to count on the municipality, and which would be different from killing the animals? It is easy to argue, in an apparently reasonable way, in order to rationalize the sweet desire to destroy another being.  The solution could hardly be arrived at with everybody’s participation  but here is an example of an effort. In the block of flats where I live we have two camps – for and against the stray dogs around the block. There have been cases when one of the female dogs has attacked and bitten people especially when she has just had her puppies. Shall we be quick and radical and kill her (them)? The owners of the pet shop in the block (who feed not only their own but other dogs too) suggested to their customers to share the expenses for castrating the female dogs that live around the block. They assured us that they knew the vet and that the animals would be brought back. Since castration affects behaviour, we hope that there will be no more unwanted puppies or – which is more important – scared and bitten neighbours.
Before the Bulgarian language acquired words like ‘WC’ or ‘toilet’, and before these facilities became widely common, the expression that was used was ‘to relieve oneself’. We now call it ‘going to the loo’. From the urban space of Sofia one is left with a strong impression that its citizens use it to ‘relieve themselves’. They constantly perform acts of revenge on the environment for living here by leaving the excrements of their discontent. As for toilets, I would like to show several photos taken in the University of Sofia and the Southwest University. The appropriate comment seems to be ‘No comment’. I would have been happier if these were black and white photos so that reality would not appear to have been to be adorned, particularly if they could absorb the smell which is spared to us here. The dark slide verifies that the use of the WC in the Southwest University requires excellent sight and impeccable familiarity with the area. We could place it in the ‘toilets by night’ category. The word ‘toilet’ stands in dramatic opposition to the setting which suggests that some shameful activity is carried out in conditions reminiscent of nature only in the sense that they lack culture. Another interpretation is possible, namely that the spirit of knowledge has no bodily dimensions and instead of students and professors, Bulgarian universities are populated by floating and fleshless ideas which is why toilets are unnecessary. What a combination of shame and knowledge.

For a few years now jeeps have been racing in the streets of Sofia with a speed which leaves the impression that they take part in a chase, in a real or imaginary action film. The city is turned simultaneously into broken country that jeeps should be used on, and in the stage set for the chase. This mock action approach introduces an element of waywardness that removes any social norm. We live in reality that reflects film scripts. The mayor of Sofia also drives a black jeep like a hero from a film. The black Mercedes cars of the senior state institutions move in the city streets in a manner that leaves no room for doubt that we should keep away from them. The jeeps are paired with the new residential palaces and their high fences hiding what is inside and protecting from unwanted visitors/attackers. The fences that turn parts of the city into fortresses do not take part in the creation of, say, a new, communication-oriented, urban environment. The new cars signify personal excellence and social power.  It must be demonstrated: on the roads (against the other cars), or in the city streets (against the pedestrians). Social power manifests itself as a threat, as being asocial.
As a counterpoint to the above, I was looking for places in Sofia where some care for the environment is evident. Such a place could be found without fail in all the branches of MacDonald’s. Maybe in another urban environment they would not be as remarkable but in Sofia they strike one as very clean and well-managed. MacDonald’s occupies sites along roads and highways. The MacDrive service suggests speed and promptness but it can also suggest guilt if the customer stays on and does not consume the whole time. The derelict no man’s spaces are turned into micro-social environments through MacDonald’s, they are cultivated and the clean toilets, whose use is  free of charge,  can also have an educating effect. The rubber castles and the slides where children play show that it is not only the MacDrive service that is offered here: one can also stay here longer if one wishes which often happens. Customers stay on and this is probably because they enjoy it. Students celebrate have their birthday parties there with their classmates. In Sofia MacDonald’s is a place where one is not threatened by the usual hostility of the urban environment. Could the customers in Sofia have an influence on the idea of fast food (which is central to the chain) so that the element of fastness can be combined with the possibility to stay longer? This, however, would change expectations and therefore the idea of fast food. The issue is not only a financial one, it also concerns the approach to the customers who are perceived as a social milieu with different attitudes. A close friend of mine who lives in the US has explained to me the kind of category of eating places that MacDonald’s belongs to in America. I believe that this is the case but it seems to me that the functioning in a social milieu is crucial. In Sofia MacDonald’s shows a commitment to the space – they fence what can care for. Would it be better to have, say, more grass and less asphalt?  Yes, of course, but for now MacDonald’s is almost the only one that cares and beyond the fence derelict areas take over. It is hard not to notice, however, that mass-produced building constructions of the ‘pagoda’ type are always identical and are not linked with the surrounding architectural environment; nor can we fail to notice that the huge M is not only a road sign signifying the proximity of a branch but also a symbolic ascendancy over the environment.
For the sake of comparison, I would refer to two slides. Тhis is the bridge which links the National Palace of Culture with the Man and Earth Museum, and which hangs over Bulgaria boulevard. The first slide shows the space at one end of the bridge, the usual neglect. The second shows the middle of the bridge with the spiral stairs descending to the MacDonald’s branch; these steps turn a previously inaccessible space into a social one. There is a special pleasure about it because of the sharp change of height in the quick ascent amid, or descent above, the flows of traffic. For the observer the optical delight is generated by the zigzag ‘ground connection’ at the highest part of the curve of the bridge. The MacDrie service is regulated by a special traffic light directing the cars  in and out of the main road.
And another example. This is the Luciano cakeshop in Mladost 1 housing estate. The owner has tried to arrange the impersonal space that was available and to improve its look (which could have been done in a more attractive way, of course) according to his own taste. While it is not strictly relevant, let me also mention the ordinary but nevertheless appealing colour arrangement of the sign that reads Pizza and Spaghetti replicating the Italian tricolour: green, white, red.  

Finally, I would make a general conclusion about the social psychology of the citizens of Sofia: in the context of their behaviour they do not seem to be aware of the existence of the other. The other has an onthologically invalid status. The micro-communities which a citizen enters all the time and which  are necessary for a good social existence, are destroyed or there is no awareness of them. The daily urban social existence requires efforts in order to be sustained which does not seem to occur. However, the opposite  phenomenon can be observed – there are mental structures which indicate that the modern division between nature and culture, and the postmodern return to nature, has not taken place. An infantile pleasure is derived from destruction as though there would be no tomorrow. The dominant attitude is that we are here temporarily and that we will be moving to another place. This is why the cultivation of environment is not a value. It has been found and it will be abandoned. Reality is perceived only as either convenient or as an obstacle, and not as a network of conventions which exist though our participation in them. Evident is the lack of the Enlightenment as pargmatics in the context of a behaviour which could not rationalise the attitude toward the surrounding space and enlarge the scope of what is one’s own and of the clothes that we wear. Among the characteristics of modernity – in Sofia the desire to consume is many times larger than the will for responsibility. But modernity is in the past. Now the ecological attitude is possible if postmodern technologies are combined with postmodern consciousness which perceives culture and nature as socii, which perceives nature not as a surrounding environment but as part of our common world (to avoid the pathos of ‘home’). The transition from hostility to the awareness that one’s reactions trigger others and that one is dependent on the reactions of others, that the space one moves through is also one’s own and that it is also dependent on one’s behaviour as well, this process of transition seems crucial to me and, alas, long. What I plead for is the daily construction of social existence. The change in the attitude toward nature is only possible as a change with regard to social existence, as an attitude for constructive participation.
Note: The text was completed at the end of 1998 and it reflects, I assume, not only my own experience of the (non-)living environment iof Sofia in the 1990’s. It was first published in the Leteratura magazine, 1999, issue 20, pp 56 - 61.
Now the state of public transport and of university toilets is improved. What could not be noticed during the second and third mandate of the mayor Sofiyanski is the privatisation of the public space of Sofia with petrol-, gas-stations and supermarkets with concrete squares in front of them. This again leaves the impression that we are here on our way to somewhere else – we  refuel, fill the boot and depart.


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